In Nebraska, Bruce Dern and Will Forte are a father and son tandem who go on a literal and emotional journey that is among the most rewarding for audiences in 2013 (stay tuned for our Nebraska review tomorrow). We caught up with Forte and Dern to get the inside scoop on the legend and the SNL vet who makes his dramatic debut in the latest film from The Descendants director Alexander Payne.
For Dern, who is getting serious Oscar buzz for his role in Nebraska, the part of Woody had him culling his early life of growing up in the Midwest. “The people were monumental to me. They were bigger than life,” Dern said of the people of the area.
“There was an honesty and an integrity. That was a quality that I picked up on more than anything else that I think we all did and Alexander did. In terms of my character in the movie, I think if there's one ingredient that Woody has: He's a fair man. And therefore, he believes everybody else is going to be fair. And when they're not, then comes the story.”
As teased in the Nebraska trailer, Forte’s David is trying to help his father who appears to be ever so slowly losing it. Yet, there’s a sharpness to him that is impossible to miss. When he receives a letter saying that an office in Lincoln, Nebraska has a million dollars for him, he heads out on the road… on foot! After getting stopped several times, David finally agrees to take him from their Montana home and our movie starts its heartwarming and bittersweet tale.
For Forte, coming from his comedic background and his work on Saturday Night Live, appearing in an Alexander Payne movie with a legend like Dern was not something that was even on his radar of possibilities.
“It wasn't something that I had ever really thought about. I love comedy, but then I read the script. I didn't even know really why my agent sent it to me because I was like, 'This is a beautiful script. And I love this character, but there is no way I would ever get this role,'” he admitted.
“It was just the most unexpected thing and not a strategic move to go into drama. I had not taken any formal acting classes. I went to the Groundlings which is a great comedy training, but is more improv and sketch comedy. So it was a very intimidating situation going into it. I was so excited after I got the job, but then the terror set in.”
Forte dove into the work, for fear of letting the filmmaker down for giving him this chance. He thought, “Oh my God. I do not want to ruin Alexander's movie.”
Keenly familiar with Dern’s work and obviously Payne’s, Forte was nervous, right until he got to the set. “It was intimidating going in, but once I got there though, Bruce was just wonderful to me, just as everybody up here was wonderful to me,” Forte said. “He was just very patient and treated me as if I was somebody who had a bunch of formal training and I was just part of the gang.”
Nebraska is shot in black and white and it is utterly gorgeous. Dern found a quick affinity for the film format, given his Midwestern background. “Particularly from ages 0 to 20, my whole feeling about the entire Midwest is that it's all black and white,” Dern said.
“Where I grew up, if you went into Chicago, from 20 miles north, there was color. But every other part of that part of the Midwest, it's always been black and white to me -- and not because I discovered it in news reels or anything else, but because of the texture of the people.”
It has less to do with the tone of the color, than with the stature of the people. “There’s an honest thread, once you get away from the big cities, that struck me more, and black and white picks that up -- like nobility, honesty, forthrightness, fairness, and that to me, always has been in black and white,” Dern continued.
Forte did not notice the color palette or lack thereof. He was too in the moment. But also, it was how Payne shoots his films. “When we were doing it, you just forget that it's black and white. Alexander doesn't really look at a monitor. So most movie sets, people are always crowded around a monitor and checking out the last take,” Forte said.
“In fact, it would be interesting to see a color version of this though because sometimes the colors of the wardrobe would be these much brighter colors which would somehow register better in black and white, so we would wear these really funky color combinations [laughs]. If anybody saw a color version of this, they would go, 'What are these guys thinking?’”
And for Dern, all this Oscar buzz is nice, but the true prize was making Nebraska. Period. “We all got awarded when we were cast. I mean, that's the best thing you do. You do anything you can do to get into an Alexander Payne movie,” Dern said.
“It was just a bunch of people coming together at the right time in their careers and in their lives and with a guy who we didn't know who presented us with a rule of thumb, if you will, that there are folks out there that are like this, and they're worth a story.”